By Peggy Wuenstel
The day we broke camp near the end of our Colorado vacation, I glanced at the campsite of our neighbors, a large extended family that had arrived late in the evening the night before, and were all still asleep in their assorted tents and campers. As we moved quietly, whispering, and closing car doors gently, I noticed something I hadn’t seen the night before. Lined up on the seat of the bench of the picnic table were several brightly colored school backpacks, each with a water bottle that obviously held their gear for this family vacation. I couldn’t help but smile, and the teacher in me kicked into high gear. These packs looked new, but where, I wondered, would they be in a few short weeks? What would they be filled with then?
I hoped those kids would be toting those same bags off to school with new pencils and clean-slate notebooks. But I also hoped somewhere in the bottoms would be some campground sand and lodge pole pine needles. More importantly, I hope they will be filled with memories of their great family vacation. And, I regret that I never thought to do the same with my own boys, now grown men with children of their own. How wonderful it would have been to break-in their back-to-school backpacks with an adventure to close out the summer. Some of those years were memorable travels, others staycations due to time and budget constraints, but each would have afforded the opportunity to imprint some summer mementos on back-to-school gear. Perhaps it is not too late to do this with my grandkids – the fourth begins her 4K experience this year and the eldest starts high school.
Paradoxically, we had our own ritual, but it was more about discarding the old rather than packing in the new. I bought all their new socks and underwear at the back-to school sales (They get earlier every year don’t they?).When we packed for our vacation, I took the grayest, loosest elastic garments they had. We left them behind at every hotel or campground garbage can, and the kids took particular delight in letting go of the old socks and the old year. Bonus: I had much less laundry on our return. One of my last vacation preparations was to stock the freshly washed new socks in their drawers to welcome them home. The new start to school began then, and we amassed the supplies and new clothes needed for the coming year. After nearly 35 years in the classroom, this will be the last year, and I have vowed to use up what I have accumulated over the years. I bought nothing but new dry erase markers, a planner, and boxes of Kleenex to begin my last year. Because I am a borderline hoarder, I have plenty of backstock to carry me through the year, regardless of how tempting 19 cent spiral notebooks might be. The ritual is different, and yet the same, a sad goodbye to the joys of summer and a welcome jump into the new year. Just maybe, this year, those two parts of life fit more closely together.
September should remind us that it is not just what we take away from school that is important. It is also what we bring to it. It’s not just the erasers and crayons or the new graphing calculator. It’s not just the new shoes and haircuts and first day of school photos. It’s the memories, the world view, the positive impacts of travel and self study, the support of a loving family that fill in the gaps that school alone cannot. It’s what helps kids find their niche, and then helps them learn how to fill it. It helps them set goals that are personal and directly tied to what makes them curious, happy, and ultimately of service to the world.
Loyal readers, this will also be my last year of blog posts on a regular basis. My husband and I are taking what we call the grand adventure next year. I’ll retire from my school district in June after 15 wonderful years here with people I love. But there is a bigger world out there to see and experience that is not always compatible with a school calendar. Before my arthritic joints are too stiff to take me where I want to go, we will see the country in a travel trailer, likely for a full year. We are selling our Wisconsin home and all those possessions we do not feel to be essential and hitting the road. Phone service and internet access will be spotty, so posting seems a tough commitment to keep. But I promise to send something in when I find a topic, observation, or heartbreak that needs sharing. I had the honor of meeting poet and education activist Tyler Mali in July, and he reports in his book, What Teachers Make, “What I do know is that since leaving the classroom, I’ve never stopped teaching. Everything I do is a kind of lesson, even if I am the only person who learns it.” I intend to be a big learner. Throughout the school year to come, I have chosen to write around a theme for the first time. Inspired by the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, I’ll write about those wonderful things that I do know that I have, before they are gone. Next year’s pack up will be enormous; this year’s is just as important, though smaller in scale.
So line up those backpacks, fill them with the tools for an end of summer adventure, and I’ll meet you at the school door for one last September.